After the Delaware Museum of Natural History closed in 2020, people in and around Delaware have been awaiting the re-opening. All of the exhibits—many in place since 1972—were removed, and the walls were taken down to the studs. Installation of new exhibits began at the end of 2021, and the grand opening of the new and improved museum is finally here.
“We’ve completely shed that dusty, old museum perception. The Delaware Museum of Nature and Science is dynamic, engaging, interactive, relevant, and modern,” Executive Director Halsey Spruance says. “Our focus is on what we know about nature and science, why it matters to us, and what we can do to protect the environment. There’s a huge emphasis on how we are all connected and how our actions matter.”
You’re standing in a wide space filled with trees. Dappled light filters down through the branches and the music of native birdsong fills the air. Squirrels climb, toads hop and baby birds fledge amid the leaves. Overhead, migrating snow geese whoosh in flight. In the distance, shorebirds call and squawk while horseshoe crabs dot the coastal surf. To the other side lies a swamp filled with lush, green cypresses. While it feels like a perfect spring day in Delaware’s great outdoors, this experience actually takes place in the new model ecosystems at the Delaware Museum of Nature & Science.
“This is our Regional Journey Gallery, and it’s all about the ecosystems of Delaware,” says Jennifer Acord, the museum’s director of communications. “It’s meant to be a multilayered experience, so there are birds throughout the trees, flying in the air. …There are the sounds, and it goes around the different ecosystems.”
Photo wallpaper depicting Delaware’s forests, hyper-realistic model trees casting mottled shadows on the ground and taxidermy animals roaming about their “natural” habitats are just some of the elements that make visitors feel as though they’re in those outdoor landscapes.
Birds are perched in trees or suspended in the air, midflight, while native birdsong plays at all times: “The woodpecker sound is actually captured by one of our scientists,” Acord shares. She has a list of every type of birdsong being played, meticulously recorded in case a visitor inquires about the sound effects. Live creatures, like spiders and toads, also reside here.
Unlike typical dioramas enclosed behind glass, these scenes spill out from their cases. “Each one tells a story,” Acord points out. In one case, a lifelike chipmunk disappears into its burrow, its striped rear end protruding from the entrance. From another angle, visitors can see the inside of the chipmunk’s burrow.
“When you’re out walking in nature, you’re looking down into spaces,” says Helen Bilinski, director of exhibits, as she ducks behind the case to point out a different perspective from which to view the chipmunk. “You’re peeking around corners over here to just get another vantage point; you’re looking into trees for the birds.”
This immersive experience trains visitors how and where to look for animals, Bilinski explains. “It’s getting you used to going through the motions. Things don’t come to you; you need to go to them, and you need to be patient.”
Previously known as the Delaware Museum of Natural History, the space has undergone an extensive $10.8 million renovation. Plans for the overhaul began in 2014. The old exhibits, some of which had been standing since 1972, were removed to make way for a more hands-on educational experience. “We really wanted to [move away] from the old-style diorama, where you’re just looking in, to being able to walk into the scene, being surrounded by it,” Acord explains.
Curious minds and lively conversations are encouraged. “We have interpretive staff on the floor all the time now…bringing additional objects and animals and activities out,” Acord says. In addition to interactive learning, the museum emphasizes environmental conservation and research.
In one coastal model ecosystem located in the Regional Journey Gallery, eagle-eyed visitors can spot some strange items partially buried in sand and shells: a bottle cap and a cigarette butt. These barely noticeable pieces of garbage serve to spark conversation about pollution.
“It may not be something that’s right there in your face, but it’s a fact of life,” Bilinski says. The museum underscores environmental protection in a variety of other ways, too: A tree of life, for example, demonstrates how all living things are connected, among other displays about evolution and climate. Have a budding scientist? They’re sure to enjoy the Research Headquarters, where guests can watch entertaining videos about the important work scientists are doing.
In one of these videos, carnivore ecologist and National Geographic Society fellow Rae Wynn-Grant, Ph.D., says, “I am a part of a team of scientists all over the world trying to save endangered species, and I’m inspired every day because I do have opportunities to see when it’s working. Bald eagles were on the verge of extinction, and now they’re back in full force. Black bears were on the verge of extinction, and now they’re quite abundant.”
The videos not only educate visitors on the urgency of conservation but they also provide something else that’s crucial: hope for a brighter future.
The headquarters also expose youngsters to a variety of nature- and environment-related jobs. As Executive Director Halsey Spruance points out, “It’s all about the applications of science, fieldwork, museum work, university work and then corporate work.” By showing children different ways they can make an impact on the planet, the museum opens professional doors for nature-lovers.
Across from the regional gallery, the Alison K. Bradford Global Journey Gallery comprises exotic model ecosystems from around the world. A shady rainforest ecosystem features a taxidermy jaguar, monkeys, snakes, an anteater, a potoo and even live poison dart frogs. (Fun fact: Since the frogs’ poison comes from what they ingest in their habitat, this group isn’t actually poisonous.)
Visitors can also explore the savannah, the arctic tundra, and the deep and shallow seas. (The iconic 1972 coral reef is still in place, painstakingly repainted to add vibrancy). Kids can climb under and around these exhibits, getting up close and personal with creatures big and small.
Looming large above an ocean segment is the skull of a juvenile humpback whale that washed ashore in Port Mahon in 2017. Hovering around 280 pounds (not including its two massive mandibles), the behemoth was collected by museum staff along with other parts of the skeleton to become a part of the newly renovated museum. “Because she is a mammal, it’s a great way for teachers to talk about ways that mammals are alike,” Bilinski says. A whale’s forelimb is available for visitors to compare to their own arms. Additionally, its baleen is on display, ready for touching. These tactile experiences are key facets of learning.
Guests come face-to-face with the formidable dinosaurs in the Ellice and Rosa McDonald Foundation PaleoZone. These creatures—including the newly elected Delaware state dinosaur, the Dryptosaurus—are thought to have roamed this area in the Cretaceous Period (145.5 million to 65.5 million years ago), unlike the dinosaurs the museum housed early on, which would have existed in what is now China. Want a closer look? Guests can make themselves part of the prehistoric scene by ducking under a glass dome and emerging right in front of the Dryptosaurus.
The PaleoZone also consists of a fossil station, adorned with paleontologists’ tools for guests to touch and examine. A wall of fossils is affectionately dubbed the Wall of Wow, featuring nautiluses, bones and horseshoe crabs, the latter of which reappear in the Regional Journey Gallery, helping visitors to draw connections about their habitat: “We can make ties not only through space [but] through time,” Bilinski explains.
For a hands-on experience, the Bill and Denise Spence Discovery Gallery features a rotating gallery of tactile exhibits exploring new topics each month.
The Rest, Relax, Recharge Café serves coffee and refreshments, along with snacks and small meals from Jamestown Catering. The new Delaware Community Foundation Respite Room provides a calming space for nursing mothers as well as guests with sensory challenges.
And the experience doesn’t have to end once you leave. Guests are encouraged to make use of the skills and tips they learned during their visit: “I’m applying them to my life and then I’m sharing them with people,” Bilinksi says. “I’m able to take my experience here and share it with my family, friends, people that I love. … You can volunteer and train and be a citizen scientist. It gives you that little bit of, ‘Hey! I can do this! I don’t have to have a Ph.D.!’”
Acord agrees: “We wanted people to really get excited about nature and science in our area. It’s one thing to see it here, but then to go out into the community and make the world a better place, or learn something new…it’s that spark of excitement that’s just amazing.”